Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bartering in Beijing

Today we rode the bus to the Dirt Market. There was merchandise galore, but it didn't look anything like Walmart! Bartering skills were honed and gifts were purchased for family and friends. Everyone enjoyed the prospect that the price could be negotiated.

Eli contemplating a purchase at the Dirt Market.

After shopping we headed to lunch and then to the Temple of Heaven. It was amazing to see the beautiful buildings

Sarah and Dawson at the Temple of Heaven.

While at the Temple of Heaven we were able to witness how native Beijinger's spend their Saturday afternoons. Tai chi, cards, Chinese chess, Tai chi paddle ball, jianzi, singing, instument playing, crocheting and dancing!

We then went to the Hong Qiao Pearl Market across the street. More shopping and more bartering! Mrs. Swan was very thankful that Mr. Penley showed her this area of Beijing.

Time after dinner will be spent journaling and resting up for another busy day tomorrow.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Beijing Day Three in Pictures

Today, we were up early and out to the Great Wall of China.
Here we are, sitting a top the Great Wall. This particular section of the wall, Simatai (司马台), was build sometime during the Ming Dynasty, 1368 to 1644 to protect the northern boarder from the Barbarians of the North. (Of course in 1644 the Manchus, one those groups of Barbarians of the North that the Great Wall was built to protect against, came storming into Beijing and set up as the Qing Dynasty, the final dynasty of Imperial China.)
Dawson wrapped in Gould's supportive arms (or flag for warmth).

Sarah "jibbing" the Great Wall.
Mitch is enjoying himself.

Eli over looking the reservoir next to Simatai.
Jianqiang gloats over now being a "好汉"。 In China there is a famous saying: 不到长城非好汉, Those who never go to the Great Wall are not true men.
Merritt is trying to blend in... if not with the people why not with the landscape?
Jeb is king of the world.One more panorama of the Great Wall fading off into the distance.

The group after we finished hiking. If you look up on the ridge you can see the Great Wall preached up on top.
We got them really tired. They couldn't make it home without a nap.
In the evening we went to a traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony (茶艺). We learned about all of the steps and processes of this ritual. Everyone seemed to enjoy the tea too.

After the ceremony, we got down to some journal writing. It was great to have our cups refilled as we sat writing away.

Tomorrow we are off to Pan Jia Yuan (the Dirt Market), the Temple of Heaven, and the Pearl Market, yet another busy day!

Buddhas and Basketball


We boarded the bus this morning with our hosts for the day, Kitty and Marie. We drove out of the city to a smaller city, Xindu, home of the Baoguang Monastery. The Zen Buddhist Monastery contains the Arhat Hall which contains 557 statues of Bodhisattavas and Arhats and ancient venerable monks. Each five foot tall statue has a different facial expression , pose and details. You enter the hall, women turn to the right and men to the left and begin studying the statues. You look them over carefully, and when you find one that is pleasing to you for whatever reason, you start counting statues in order, working your way down the hall. You count statues for the number of years you’ve been alive, and then you add one, and then you read the number that statue is assigned. You remember that number and go outside to a counter where you pay 5 yuan to buy a card with your fortune. Everyone had a terrific time having their cards read.

After a wonderful tour of this tranquil place with a great tour guide, we lit incense and headed for lunch. Buddhist Monks are vegetarians, and we ate at the Monastery. The food was delicious, and everything was either vegetables or tofu. Tofu in every shape and color and texture and flavor.

After lunch we had a chance to secure our happiness for the coming year by walking the length of a courtyard with our eyes closed and touching the red Chinese characters written in the middle of a very large wall. Most of us will indeed have a happy year, although it took a good deal of “left, left, now right, now straight!” from the crowd.

We spent two hours on Jin Li street, a shopping area that specializes in traditional crafts. The Starbucks (yes, Starbucks!) was popular because it boasts a western style toilet, a sink with soap, toilet paper, and heat! Woohoo!

Two brave students, Tutu and Will chose to do a very Chinese thing- have their ears cleaned on the street by men with tuning forks and a variety of tools. As with any endeavor that takes place in the street, it drew a big crowd!

After Jin Li, we returned to campus for a game of basketball. We drove into the schoolyard to find 500 students standing in their school uniforms around all four sides of the basketball court. Zach, Will, Alex, Jonathon ,TuTu and Mr. Baker put on their game faces, and with the rest of our group making up a very small but earnest cheering section, we got down to business. Their students were good, They even had a ref- this was serious b-ball. Back, forth, 2 points here, two points there, mostly two points there. It was all about friendship, and everyone had a great time. Meanwhile girls were talking to those of us who were not playing. The students are always anxious to try out their English conversation skills, and more than a few girls were quite fascinated by our boys!

A seventh grade girl approached me and asked me what I thought about Holden Caulfield’s feelings and thoughts in The Catcher in the Rye. We then talked about Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Emma and The Devil Wears Prada, all books that she has read in English under the covers at night with her “torch”, but “shh, don’t tell my teacher, I should be sleeping!”

After the game everyone left for the weekend with their host families.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones

Yesterday we went east so today we headed west and the theme of the day was bones. Our journey took us 110kms from the city, and with yet another change in the weather (it was a bit warmer and we even saw the sun for a few minutes) the kids were lively and chattering away. Our first stop was the Famen Buddhist Temple, located at a site along the route of the Silk Road. The Temple is best known for having one of Buddha’s finger bones, a holy relic much revered by Buddhists. Emperors came to the Temple to worship and Buddhism persists as the most popular religion in China today, followed by Islam and then Christianity. The Temple includes an impressive 13 tier pagoda. The current pagoda is the most recent in a long line of pagodas, with the previous ones destroyed by fires or earthquakes. Underneath each was a hidden underground palace where the holy relics were hidden for 13 centuries, before being rediscovered in the 1980’s during the construction of the current pagoda. The kids got a great introduction to Buddhism as they witnessed practicing Buddhists praying before the statues of Buddha, and they seemed particularly drawn to the urns of burning incense.
Next came a trip to a Tang Dynasty tomb complex. The most impressive tomb was the dual tomb of Emperor Tang Gaozong and Empress Wu Zetian. Empress Wu was a former concubine to two Emperors, and claimed the throne herself after both had died. She was the only female monarch ever to rule China, and apparently she ruled with a combination of shrewd political savvy and ruthless intolerance of those who opposed her, including her own flesh and blood. Among the unfortunate to cross Empress Wu was her granddaughter, Princess Yongtai, who by some accounts was executed by the Empress at age 17 for criticizing some court favorites. Now that is a strict disciplinary system. We visited the Princess’s tomb, one of the few that have been excavated in China, for lunch and tour. It was so frequently invaded by tomb raiders that the government figured it should just go ahead and open it up. When they did, the only bones they found were of a raider. The theory, based on the fact that the skull and skeleton were separated and an axe head lay nearby, is that he was double-crossed by his partner for his share of the loot. Of course this got everyone’s attention, and the kids were keen to finish our descent into the tomb. They had lots of questions for our guide and learned a fair bit about the Tangs, tombs, and looting.
We finished our day at the much grander main tomb mentioned earlier. Since this tomb has never been opened, there was no opportunity to go in. So, some settled for a quick climb up the mountain, while the rest took a leisurely stroll down the Spirit Way, under the watchful eyes of 36 stone guardians.

Then it was back to Xi’an, and the talk on the return trip was about plans for the weekend. All seem to have connected well with their hosts and are looking forward to whatever the weekend may bring. At least some are gathering to wish Evan a happy birthday on Sunday. We look forward to hearing the stories come Monday, but for now it is time for some peace and quiet as we each go our separate ways for a couple of days.

Our Country Excursion

We set off this morning after another delightful evening with the host families. Haley's story of being served Pringles for breakfast made us all start the day with a smile. We traveled to Dujiangyan, the site of a historical wonder of a 2000 year old irrigation system that still provides water for the Chengdu Plain. We anticipated being impressed by the engineering, but no one foresaw the natural splendor that would surround us for the morning. Lush gardens, aqua green water, and ancient temples set in the mountains were in every direction.

We crossed the giant river over a suspension bridge to look more closely at the temple there. The kids loved the challenge of balancing on the swaying bridge.

Much of the temple was being restored due to the recent earthquake in the area. It was hard to not be awestruck by the impact of this natural event when regarding this national treasure. Earlier we had noted the effects of the earthquake on modern buildings in the downtown of Dujiangyan. Many windows were broken and the walls of the buildings had large cracks. Many buildings had been abandoned and are waiting for reconstruction.

Following our tour of the irrigation system, we dined at a local restaurant. Students were hungry after all the walking. Our chopstick skills prove that we have been in the country for more than a week.

There was an Orchid Expo taking place in a town nearby. Upon entering the orchid fair, it was clear we were entering yet another world. People enthusiastically snapped photos of the flowers and were appreciating their delicate and rare beauty. Our group was even filmed for the local TV channels. Our celebrity status seems to continue.

This was our first opportunity to see life beyond the city of Chengdu. The students enjoyed seeing the fields of bright yellow flowers, the rush of bicycle and motor scooter traffic, not to mention vehicles laden with various materials. Sites of rural living gave us a new side of China to consider. We returned back to the school where host families greeted the students and took them home to start their weekend together. Our next blog post will be on Monday after the weekend.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday-The Giant Buddha of Leshan

This morning we took a bus to Leshan, a city about an hour and a half from Chengdu. It is at this point where three rivers converge and the turbulent waters have always been treacherous to watercraft. A Buddhist monk called Haitong decided that the waters could be quieted if Buddha were to look over the site. He began the undertaking of carving a giant Buddha out of the sandstone cliff. It was begun in 713 AD and completed 90 years later. It is 71 meters high. We walked up to the top of the Buddha, then descended a very, very, VERY steep set of steps carved into the adjacent wall to the base of the statue, and then climbed back up the other side, through passes carved in the sandstone.

Before the visit to the park, we took a boat ride to the base of the cliff, and then had lunch in a popular local establishment.

The road to Leshan provided wonderful views of the countryside- high rise buildings give way to terraced fields of vegetables. Much of the land is in bloom with the yellow flowers of the rapeseed plant. Oranges are being harvested now and they are plentiful in local markets.

Everyone in our group is trying new things, eating what they are served at home, taking lots of photos, and being the travelers we knew they would be. Tomorrow, Baoguang Monastery, a little shopping and some basketball with the CDEFLS students…

Cultural Immersion 101

Today we had several lessons at the Chengdu Experimental Foreign Language School Affiliated to the Tanghu Middle School. We started the morning learning how to speak Chinese - just the basics: good morning, How are you?, very spicy, delicious, American, and how to say each of our names. The teacher also offered to teach students sentences or phrases they wanted to learn. "I love to ski", "Will you marry me?", and "The food is delicious" are just a few of the students' requests.

During a short break, we discussed the happenings of the previous night: an outing to Pizza Hut with several of the host families and strolling down the historical street of shops were some highlights.

Following the short break, students moved into one of the classrooms to learn hand crafts. We folded origami birds, an elephant, a lantern, among other shapes. Students had fun following our teacher who taught solely by demonstration since he did not speak English. It was effective in making the kids really watch the teacher so as not to miss a fold.

The students went home with their host siblings for lunch and a rest before returning for the final lesson of the day in calligraphy. The teacher was very skilled in this art and reminded us by comparison of what it was like to learn to print English. We learned phrases such as Happy Birthday and Chinese and American friendship. The teacher even presented a few of our students with his beautiful artwork. Trevor received a special gift of the teacher's work wishing him a Happy Birthday.

Following our calligraphy lesson, we headed over to one of the school's dining halls for a hands-on dumpling making experience, which was to become our dinner. Our hosts complimented Aaron's fine skills, who knew he has such talents lurking within those hands! The dumplings were added to a tasty soup.

Some students jumped at the chance to play basketball or soccer out in the large athletic field with the Chinese students. Many Chinese students remembered our classroom visit and were eager to talk again. Students met up with their host parents for their third evening of a home stay.

Tomorrow we look forward to more stories from the home stay. We will travel to Du Jiangyan, an ancient irrigation system that still serves the community. We've heard that it is a sight to behold.

Beijing Day Two In Pictures

The Morning View outside my window. Sunrise over Beijing.

The group at the Beijing Planning Exibition. They are standing on a picture map of Beijing and behind them is a 3-D model of the city.
Mitchell taking a picture of a lit up model of Beijing's CBD (Central Business District.) Also at the Beijing Planning Exhibition. We also got to see a 3-D movie about the history of Beijing and a 4-D movie about the transportation systems.
Next Stop: The Beijing Zoo
Panda. Eating.

Video of a Panda. Eating.

A Peacock shows off for the crowd.

This rather embaressed young fellow's mother and aunt really wanted to have a picture of him with Sarah and Merritt. He was quite reticent, but finally allowed himself to be dragged into a shot.

This is a Asiatic Brown Bear. While the Panda's and a few of the other exhibits are well kept and fairly humane. The conditions in much of the Zoo are quite terrible. This poor bear and his cellmate lived in a small enclosure of cement and rock and spent their time playing with trash that people had dropped into the enclosure.

Cotton Candy.

Sarah just wanted a bite of Merritt's cotton candy. Merritt was very sad when she took the whole thing.

Jianqiang and Dawson.
Dawson wears his pack really low. So we all did too.
Dinner Before Shot.
Post dinner snack. Yes, that is a scopion on a stick. Yes, Jeb is eating it. Fianl words for the day: Tastes like popcorn!